The Field Report: Reflecting on a Big Year for Food News | Civil Eats

The Field Report: Reflecting on a Big Year for Food News

We covered big food and ag stories related to climate, justice, and nutrition this year. Plus, what we’re looking forward to covering in 2023.

Goverment Capitol building in Washington DC with autumn park and green floor and blue sky , USA, United States of America

Breaking news is not typically our focus at Civil Eats. On the contrary, we excel at reporting that goes beyond the usual churn of the news cycle. In deeply reported pieces, we dig into overlooked topics and discover underreported angles to reveal hidden truths and illustrate complicated food system realities.

There is always a “but,” multiple “ands,” and the inevitable “not to mention.”

But (see?), we engage with the news cycle intimately to do all of that well, and more. So, this year, we introduced something new. Instead of only weaving all the daily news we gather on this beat into our regular in-depth reporting, I started writing a regular column called The Field Report.

We envisioned The Field Report as a place to share quick news items that felt important to our readers but not quite ready for the full Civil Eats treatment. It’s an opportunity for us to provide our take on significant reports, update stories we’ve already covered extensively, and provide context to big policy announcements.

Looking back, that’s exactly what we did this year, in 25 installments to date. And in the end, those small digests added up to what turned out to be a very big year for food-system news. That was especially true in Washington, D.C.

Over the course of the year, I talked to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack about his promises to transform the food system, went to the Supreme Court to hear arguments related to an animal welfare law, and attended the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health. Outside the Beltway, we covered topics as diverse as PFAS contamination on farms, how the war in Ukraine might affect the food supply, and plant-based meat marketing.

Most importantly, these updates mattered to our readers: Many weighed in to tell us they appreciated the new approach, and our Field Report coverage of the Biden administration’s historic climate bill was one of our most-read stories of the year.

Here’s a recap of some of the biggest issues we tackled in The Field Report in 2022, with insights into what we expect to pay close attention to in the year ahead.

Food & Climate

We covered the October lead-up to COP27 and two big climate reports released as part of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s sixth assessment, in February and April. Both reports called attention to food and agriculture in a much more pronounced way than the  previous assessments had. And while the experts concluded the climate crisis is already affecting the world’s food and water supply more significantly than previously reported, they also pointed toward the real power of solutions like agroecology, agroforestry, plant-forward diets, and cutting food waste.

Among the biggest takeaways was the conclusion that if solutions were implemented quickly, the food and agriculture sector could provide nearly one-third of the greenhouse gas reductions needed to avoid catastrophic outcomes.

In D.C., we covered how legislators included agriculture in the historic climate bill passed in August and what climate experts said was missing from the bill. Along those same lines, we shared reports pointing to how the Biden administration’s climate plans fail to regulate methane from the meat and dairy industries and how many food companies are failing to track their greenhouse gas emissions despite big climate promises.

As the farm bill process heats up in early 2023, questions about whether conservation programs are funding actual climate-friendly practices on farms will become even more pressing.

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Equity & Justice

There were two big, developing stories on our radar this year that dealt with both historic and ongoing injustices in agriculture. First, in January, the Biden administration came in with big plans to target consolidation in the meat industry, which officials said harms workers, farmers, and consumers. A few months later, Congress held a hearing to grill meat company CEOs. Over the course of the year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced various rule changes and initiatives to invest in small, regional meat processing infrastructure, while the Justice Department cracked down on the poultry industry’s controversial tournament system.

However, it will be a while before it’s clear if investments in small processors have increased competition, or whether the new anonymous farmer tip line has decreased violations of the Packers & Stockyards Act. And given the level of consolidation and power in the industry, determining how successful these changes are at leveling the playing field for farmers will be a slow, ongoing process.]

Meanwhile, efforts to relieve the debts of Black farmers who have faced well-documented USDA discrimination over the past century faced pushback from white farmers and right-wing interest groups. Previously, in 2021, a court stopped proposed debt-relief funds from the American Rescue Plan from being distributed after white farmers sued the government. Then, in August, legislators replaced that program with another that avoided race-specific language in the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA).

Some farmer advocates cheered that move as a smart way to get money out to Black farmers faster, while other groups called the move a betrayal, since it ended the initial debt-relief process for good. In January, we covered how the Federation of Southern Cooperatives is studying how past litigation impacted Black farmers and their families long-term. The findings of that research will be even more relevant when they’re released, given that the legal battles are ongoing.

The USDA is expected any day now to release details on how funds designated for “distressed borrowers” in the IRA will be distributed. As we head into the new year, we’ll be paying close attention to how much of that money actually ends up in the hands of Black farmers.

Hunger & Nutrition

During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, attention turned to how many Americans had been living on the edge of food insecurity and to how poor nutrition can increase the risk of severe illness and death for individuals faced with healthcare crises. This year, those factors created a springboard to push several hunger and nutrition initiatives into the spotlight, which we covered week after week.

In March, Secretary Vilsack unveiled a new “nutrition security” framework within the USDA to ensure that its nutrition programs are delivering healthy food—not just any food—to hungry Americans.

In September, Hunger Free America released a report that found policy changes to SNAP, WIC, P-EBT, and the Child Tax Credit made in response to pandemic-related increases in food insecurity helped families afford enough food—and more fresh and whole foods—while also making it easier for them to take care of critical expenses.

One of the most talked-about changes was the fact that Congress and the USDA allowed public schools to serve meals to all students free of charge during 2020 and 2021. Halfway through this year, that program’s expiration prompted protests from advocacy groups and school nutrition professionals, who warned it would cause a spike in child hunger.

The call to permanently implement universal school meals was then heard over and over at the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health in September. While details on the conference came together at the very last minute and some criticisms lingered around a lack of bipartisanship and who had been invited to be in the room, most policymakers, experts, and advocates called the day historic given the fact that the federal government had not convened an event like it in more than 50 years. And the administration released an ambitious national strategy to end hunger and improve the health of Americans in the coming years.

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Going into 2023, we’ll be watching what happens to the various components of that strategy, so we can share details on the programs that get implemented and have a real impact, those that go wrong, and components that never see the light of day. We’ll see you out in the field next year.

Catch up on all of The Field Report columns from 2022. If you’ve got a tip, email: lisa~at~civileats.com or send a secure email to civileats~at~protonmail.com.

Lisa Held is Civil Eats’ senior staff reporter. Since 2015, she has reported on agriculture and the food system with an eye toward sustainability, equality, and health, and her stories have appeared in publications including The Guardian, The Washington Post, and Mother Jones. In the past, she covered health and wellness and was an editor at Well+Good. She is based in Baltimore and has a master's degree from Columbia University's School of Journalism. Read more >

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